Emmett Stinson on why publishers need to take self-publishing seriously

Writer, editor, short story writer, reviewer, academic and co-founder of Wet Ink, Emmett Stinson is currently shortlisted for the 2011 Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, for his collection, Known Unknowns , published by Affirm Press. He chats with us today about his essay ‘Vanity Fair’ featured in Overland 204.

You write, ‘In a traditional publishing contract, there is a division of labour: authors focus on what they are good at (writing), while publishers concentrate on their strengths (editing, printing, marketing, etc) … ‘ With the increasing commodification of writers (expected to promote themselves and create a ‘platform’) and the level of perfection required of manuscript submissions meaning that writers are increasingly pressured to use freelance editors and pay for their services themselves, does the ‘traditional publishing contract’ still exist?

Yes, ‘traditional’ contracts absolutely still exist, and it is essential that authors understand what they are signing. Authors who are unsure about specific clauses in their contracts can get more information from organisations like the Australian Society of Authors and the Australian Writers Guild. Literary agents and various consultancy services also help many authors navigate these issues for a percentage of profits or a fee, which many writers I know believe to be money well-spent.

At the same time, though, the demands placed on authors now are completely different from what they were thirty years ago. Even authors who have traditional contracts with established publishers are expected to promote themselves in a variety of ways, including radio interviews , festival talks, bookshop events, writing for magazines and newspapers, and maintaining their own websites or blogs – which is a particularly time-consuming endeavor; the result is an increasing burden of immaterial labour, in which authors are expected to do more work to justify their (increasingly smaller) advances. In point of fact, this very interview, which is a value-add in relation to my essay on self-publishing, is a great example of the new demands placed on authors.

Personally, I’m not bothered by these demands, because I enjoy public speaking and otherwise engaging in public discourse. But this is not always the case for authors, many of whom are bookish people that aren’t predisposed towards these kinds of activities. The other negative effect of these pressures is that many authors end up producing what is effectively marketing copy masquerading as public discourse – with the result that many writers’ talks at festivals and the like become little more than the rehashing of a series of vagaries and clichés (currently, my favorite cliché is when writers talk about ‘our natural thirst for story or ‘our desire for narrative’, both meaningless statements). So it’s a loss on two fronts: 1) authors are hesitant to engage in such promotions suffer disadvantage in the marketplace, and 2) the general discourse around books is degraded.

The trend, unfortunately, is to demand more immaterial labour for less pay – and self-publishing currently represents the extreme horizon of this trend. The problem is a classic issue of supply and demand: there are many more books out there than the market can support, meaning that most authors – except those few who are already established commodities – really have no option but to accept this situation. Should some emerging authors decide to withdraw their labour, there are plenty of other people who would happily to take their place.

Do you think there’s still a snobbery that says paper books are ‘better’ than ebooks?

I think many people have a hard time accepting digital files as a substitute for material artifacts, which is to say that the digital feels more disposable (even though paperbacks are an intentionally disposable medium). Despite researching on ebooks, I am an unashamed print fetishist: I like print books and overstuffed bookshelves, and will make every attempt to source a print copy before buying an ebook. But I also know that I’m not indicative of the larger market (although my buying habits would resonate with a certain niche market, i.e. my buying habits indicate that I’m an inner-suburban, university-educated, ageing hipster). I do own a Kindle (and for all the bad press about Amazon, the Kindle is incredibly easy to use), but I typically use it for reading academic articles, my friends’ manuscripts and review copies of books.

But these kinds of anecdotal statements don’t really tell us anything about the larger market for books. Ebooks will end up being successful because they are convenient: they offer immediate access to a broader range of titles than any physical store could stock, and they can also be customized in a variety of ways that suit consumers. For example, I know many older readers who like ebooks because the font size can be enlarged and it is easier to turn the pages. More importantly, ebooks will succeed for the very reason of their profitability. The market for physical books is not growing (i.e. it is a low-margin business), whereas the ebook market is. Growing markets attract investment, which leads to more growth. People have strong feelings about books, but we live in a globalized market, and under capitalism these large-scale changes will ultimately determine the future, and localized nostalgia for the smell of books will not. I firmly believe that the printed book will not die, but the future of the book industry is a digital one.

Where are you now, with your writing practice? What are you working on at the moment?

I write in a variety of different genres, including book reviews, fiction, literary studies and publishing research – so at any point I’m working on a few different projects. In terms of publishing research, though, I continue to be very interested in book piracy, and particularly the way that groups of ‘pirates’ actually constitute online communities. At the moment, I’m looking at a few book-sharing sites in the attempt to show that the form of these sites actually reflects the practices of e-commerce sites like Amazon; both incorporate aspects of social media, consumer reviews and so on in a surprisingly similar way. In this sense, the ‘illegal’ sites are, in many respects, mirror images of their ‘legitimate’ counterparts, suggesting that the two modes of distribution – regardless of their legality – are in a sense complimentary.

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. To be honest, Shelley, I’d like to push it even further and say that more writers need to be quiet, and write only when they have something to say, rather than just for self-promotion. The problem is that such a position, aside from being more or less hypocritical, is essentially precious.

  2. Thanks Clare and Emmett – a really timely discussion on a number of levels.

    An emerging writer friend in the know, mentioned recently that a major publishing house is soon to offer writers the opportunity to have their manuscripts edited (for a fee)and then made available as an ebook for purchase. My understanding is that all manuscripts will be accepted and that the above-mentioned fee will include some marketing.

    I’m not sure if this is already occurring but I can see it could be a pathway to huge profits for publishers, if not for emerging writers, who in a market that’s likely to be flooded with hopefuls, might not get the interest or attention they hoped for.

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